Reducing meat consumption is a great way to help your health and the environment. But when you do indulge in a juicy steak, what’s better – grass or grain-fed beef? Does it matter?
Cows are typically fed either grass, grain, soy or corn. Although not technically correct, for ease of writing, when I say grain I am referring to grain, soy and corn, which are said to all have similar effects on cows. Animals were first fed grain when factory farming, or large feedlots, began popping up. Cows were switched to grain for convenience and cost. Grain-fed cows don’t need a pasture and, therefore, can be crammed together in small spaces, increasing production and profit per square foot. Grain, corn and soy are also much cheaper feeds. Unfortunately, grain isn’t the only component of this type of feed. Cheap fillers, such as animal parts and stale pastry may also be included as a way to cut costs.
Mass production of animals and meat leads to lower food prices and higher profit for companies. When we buy factory-farmed meat as a society, we are essentially buying bulk. So what’s wrong with cheaper food? Nothing, in an of itself, but when you look a bit closer into the costs that aren’t calculated into the price at the grocery store, we find that there is actually a substantial cost to this type of food. Impact on the environment and our health all have an associated cost.
The argument for grass-fed beef often refers to the fact that the digestive systems of cows works most efficiently when digesting grass, not grain. However, these days, most cows are grain-fed. So cows weren’t intended to eat grain… Does that mean it’s necessarily worse if they do?
The flavor of beef is said to be quite different depending on the type of feed. For those who just want the juiciest, tastiest piece of meat, perhaps you want a steak from a grain-fed cow. Grain-fed cows produce the fattiest meat, and since fat contributes immensely to taste… well, you get the picture. But not everyone agrees. Despite the lower fat content, lovers of grass-fed beef say the flavor of the meat is much more pronounced. The split of people who prefer one or the other is said to be about 50/50.
Unfortunately, there are some things to consider other than taste. For instance, with grain feeds, there are some downsides for the cow. Grain feed is not nutritionally or biologically ideal for a cow. Since the digestive systems of cows don’t handle grain well, this diet (which is high in starches and low in fibre) can result in lots of bloating and discomfort for the animal. This is referred to as “feed lot bloat”. Grain-fed cows can also develop something called “acidosis”. Acidosis is caused by an overproduction of acids from digestion of grain, and can be a serious and painful condition. It can also weaken the immune system, which makes the animals more susceptible to bacterial infections and illnesses and increase the need for antibiotics.
Because the grain is lacking in nutrition, these cows are often also fed a slew of other supplements and additives which can include things like ammonium sulfate, blood meal, bone meal, defluorinated phosphate, fat from poultry, meat meal, and other nasty sounding ingredients.
Studies have shown that the nutritional content of beef is largely influenced by an animal’s feed. Grass-fed beef is a bit better for you in terms of the fat composition. Meet from grain-fed animals has been found to be higher in total and saturated fat, cholesterol and Calories, and lower in vitamin E, CLA (shown to have some health benefits ) and healthy omega-3 fats. If you only eat meat on occasion, this difference likely won’t affect you much, but if meat is a staple in your diet, this could potentially make a difference to you.
It appears that grass-fed beef certainly has a bit of a leg up in every department except (arguably) taste. So what’s a meat eater to do? It depends what your priorities are. Cost, health, environmental sustainability and taste all play a role in your choice. I think you all know where I stand. I’d rather pay a bit more for higher quality and eat it less.
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – Michael Pollan
Corn. Not a super exciting topic it may seem. You probably think that corn doesn’t play much of a part in your life. You may be surprised, however, to learn that corn is not only a fixture in your life, but a tremendous influence.
What do you eat or use every day that is made from (or of) corn? Once in a while we have corn on the cob, bake with corn syrup, or maybe eat some mixed vegetables with corn in it, but you don’t use corn everyday, right? Wrong.
Those little yellow kernels come from a plant called “zea mays”, the most important cereal crop on the planet. Corn is thought to have originated in Central Mexico, but has since made it’s way north, west, east and south. Corn production has sky-rocketed in the last 100 years. Corn is literally everywhere. Farmers now produce enough corn for 129 people, up from 16 people about 100 years ago. Unfortunately, much of this corn is not food grade (meaning you wouldn’t want to mow down on a cob of this stuff) but, much of it still makes it into the industrial food system through the proverbial back door.
Corn is in all the places you would expect – cornbread, corn flour, soup, but it’s also in beer, whiskey, soda, and probably any packaged or processed food you pick up off the store shelves or, especially, through a drive-thru window. My favorite example is the chicken nugget, made of modified corn starch (to keep the nugget together), corn flour (batter) and corn oil (for frying, of course). Add a pop to that, and you’re washing down your corn with corn*. Corn also feeds the animals that make our meat: the turkeys, cattle, fish, and chickens. Cheez whiz, salad dressings and even vitamins contain some derivative of corn, and it goes far beyond food items. Toothpaste, trash bags, cleaners and batteries…. the shine on your produce? Wax from corn. Coated cardboard? You guessed it, corn.
Corn has, as Michael Pollan refers to it, has a “dual identity”. No longer is it just used to feed people, it’s used in everything you can imagine. In fact, only a small amount of the corn grown is used in food we eat directly. The rest is for all the other stuff I listed above
The background of how this came to be is so extensive and convoluted, I won’t even attempt to explain it here. Long story short, the U.S. government has implemented laws and policies that have lead to a corn price so low, it costs the farmer more to produce it than it costs to purchase it. These low prices mean corn is the “perfect ingredient” for manufacturers of everything from cardboard boxes to cereal bars to use in their products. Low prices also mean a cheap food supply, made primarily of corn and lacking in nutritional value
All this cheap corn means its more profitable (and more conducive to factory farming) to fatten cattle with corn rather than grass. In fact, 3 out of every 5 kernels of corn in the U.S. go to feed animals at factory farms, including factory farmed salmon. Before humans, corn never existed in the diets of salmon or cattle. Corn didn’t grow in the ocean, and cattle grazed on green pastures of grass. Changing the diet of these species does have an impact on the health of the animal, the quality of the meat we eat, and the environment (see my post on grass vs animal fed beef here). As I mentioned before, the types of foods you will find corn derivatives in, are nutritionally sparse, low cost, unhealthy foods.
It would seem at first glance that a world derived from corn may not be so bad. After all, isn’t corn a natural plant? Doesn’t that mean that using it in all these products would be a good thing? Not exactly. In the old days, corn and cows used to grow and be raised together. The corn would feed the cow, and the cow’s waste would fertilize the land for the corn.
You see, corn doesn’t naturally occur in such great quantities. And without the cows to fertilize the land (because the cows are now in CAFOs), in order to produce as much corn as we do, chemical pesticides and fertilizers are used in large amounts. This of course, leads to green house gasses and chemical run-off into our streams. The CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) that the corn feeds also contribute to toxic waste, pollution and disease.
In short, corn is delicious and wonderful in its natural form, the cob. We humans have stretched the limits of this simple crop to facilitate our thirst for endlessly cheaper food. Let’s not forget though, cheap food comes at a hidden cost, to our health and the environment.*This blog was inspired by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, specifically, chapter 2.
As you walk through the baking aisle at the grocery store, you may find yourself perplexed when trying to purchase an ingredient as simple as salt. Do I choose sea salt that my friend told me was healthier, or do I stick with table salt? Is there a benefit to one or the other and what distinguishes them?
First and foremost, sea salt and table salt have very little chemical makeup. They both contain at least 97.5% sodium chloride. The difference lies in the way they are produced, which results in different appearance, textures, and taste. Sea salt is derived directly from the ocean or sea and is mostly unrefined. The salt water is evaporated then dried for extraction of the crystals. Because it is unrefined, it contains trace amounts of other minerals. These trace minerals are thought to be the reason it is more flavorful and more natural, or “healthier” in some eyes. Most gourmet chefs love the taste and texture of sea salt.
Table salt is the more common type of salt. It is extracted from salt mines and heavily refined. During this process, most of the trace minerals are removed, substances are added to keep it from clumping, and Iodine is added. This originated back in the 1920s when people were thought to be deficient in Iodine. This trace element is essential to our bodies but only needed in small amounts.
By weight, sea salt and table salt have the same nutrient value. For one teaspoon of salt, there is 2,300 mg of sodium. It is recommended to limit your sodium intake to 1500-2400 mg per day, depending on any medical conditions that may further limit your daily allowance. For the average American, we consume around 3400 mg per day, and up to 75% of that is added by the manufactures. You will get enough sodium through the foods you eat. To keep healthy, you may want to think twice the next time you pick up a salt shake of any kind.
Resources: Click to find out more about the effect that salt has on health-WASH (World Action on Salt and Health)
Once in a while I come across a product that is, what I call, a “nutrition impostor”. That is, although the product contains little nutrition, is high in fat and/or sugar, the company would have you believe it is little short of a nutrition powerhouse.